Building a Stronger Sense of Community through Restorative Justice
My name is Ashley Ellis and I am the Restorative Justice Coordinator for Good Shepherd Services (GSS) at The School for Democracy and Leadership (SDL) in East Flatbush.
I’m originally from Chicago, where I was trained as a Peace Circle Keeper through the Community Justice Youth Institute. I also facilitated circles with youth on probation as part of a citywide Restorative Justice initiative designed to keep youth in the community and out of jail and detention centers.
These experiences helped me fall in love with circle keeping and Restorative Justice. I saw the power it had to build community, understanding, and create a safe space for healing to happen—not only for victims, but for offenders as well.
I’m excited to be a part of the Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project with GSS because I know that I am part of a larger movement working to use restorative justice as a method to combat the school-to-prison pipeline, address issues of racial justice, and how these issues affect our students and the broader community.
GSS serves over 26,000 youth and families citywide and its mission threads into our restorative approach within everything we do:
Good Shepherd Services goes where children, youth, and families face the greatest challenges and builds on their strengths to help them gain skills for success. We provide quality, effective services that deepen connections between family members, within schools, and among neighbors. We work closely with community leaders to advocate, both locally and nationally, on behalf of our participants to make New York City a better place to live and work.
Our Restorative Justice Implementation Team of administrators, staff, teachers and students is the perfect example of us living this mission. Their collaboration enables us to utilize all the voices represented in the school.
In my new role as Restorative Justice Coordinator at SDL, I’m charged with helping to shift the culture of the school from reactive or punitive to a school that can slow the process and rely on restorative actions.
SDL serves students grades 6-12 and has a majority African American student body. SDL students face many challenges including trauma, outside barriers impacting their learning, and the pressure to take on adult responsibilities. Despite these circumstances, I’m impressed by their unstoppable desire to succeed. It’s these students, and the commitment other staff have to making a difference, that make coming to work every day a rewarding experience. I like that we are building a community for these students and instilling a sense of “we’re all in this together” within the greater community.
We’re developing creative ways to shift culture, including a new Peace Room within the school. This room is designed to be a safe space for students to step away from the noise, resolve conflict, and connect with GSS or SDL staff. It’s also where we teach our Restorative Practice class, where students train to become circle keepers and peer mediators, and learn how to be fully engaged in their school and broader community. Our goal is for these students to help lead morning circles in the school, and help other students work through conflict and problems that prevent them from being in class.
We’ve also created a lunchtime circle in the Peace Room, where students can come and discuss current events, social issues, areas around personal growth, and play games. It’s helped our staff build relationships with students, and more importantly, connected students with each other in a unique and positive environment where they can recognize that despite their differences, they share similar goals and similar obstacles.
While we’re building strong relationships with students, we’re also partnering with teachers. In three-week cycles, I work with one-on-one with teachers to provide support and restorative coaching. We’re also planning more school-wide community-building events to bring staff into the Peace Room. Because the school day can be hectic and teachers are at times overwhelmed, we’re thinking of ways to slow down the day to make time for staff processing, and to ensure sound decisions are made, free of bias or escalated emotion.
I’m lucky to be doing this work alongside my fellow GSS Restorative Justice team members: Program Director Andy Morris, Rachel Hollis, LCSW, and Restorative Counselor Michael Pierce. As a strong team, we’re able to address student and school needs holistically. We’re also able to support students who are facing barriers outside of school, which further creates a safe and trusting environment for students to come to school and learn.
Our primary goal for the school year is to create an experience where Restorative Justice will touch the hearts and minds of the adults (staff, teachers, administration) for a greater paradigm shift in the school culture and climate. This will ultimately have a positive and lasting impact on the lives of the students we work with.